Going Paperless In The Construction Industry

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Will the day ever come when the construction industry eliminates the use of paper?

As a construction professional, can you envision the day coming where you no longer use paper in your daily activities? We’re talking no more hard copies of plans and specs, invoices, contracts, timesheets, punch lists, contracts or bids. In such a paper-reliant industry like construction this may seem completely improbable to some.

While the notion of a paperless construction company might seem crazy, the industry continues to head in that direction. Not only does the technology already exist to go completely paperless, current solutions are better at making your company more efficient and productive while allowing for easier communication and collaboration.

We’ll get to some of ways technology is rapidly making paper obsolete in a just a bit. If you’re still skeptical that the use of paper could never be replaced at your construction company, answer the following two questions:

  1. When was the last time you flipped through a copy of the yellow pages to look up a phone number?
  2. When was the last time you bought film for your camera?

Have you done either of these in the past week? What about the past month? The past year? Can you even remember the last time you’ve done both of these things?

I can’t remember the last time I used a phonebook. We had some delivered to our office building a couple of weeks ago. Multiple copies were left stacked outside the doors to the various companies located in our building. After a couple of days there didn’t appear to have been many takers. One morning I came in to find they all had disappeared. My guess is the custodial staff had been instructed to gather them all up and toss them in the dumpster.

I do, however, remember the last time I purchased camera film. It was in 2006 when I finally traded in my manual Nikon FM10 SLR for a Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT. I used to enjoy developing my own black and white film and making prints in my bathroom turned makeshift darkroom, so it was hard to give it up.

The problem is I was going on a massive cross-country road trip for several months and going digital was the best option. I could take as many pictures as I wanted, could review each one immediately, could switch from black and white to color as much as I desired and anytime the memory card got full I just uploaded everything to my laptop. With a film camera I would have probably spent hundreds on film and developing and wouldn’t know whether I had gotten any good shots until after my trip. I also would have constantly worried about the film being damaged by prolonged heat exposure from being stored in a vehicle for months.

My switch from film to digital was a better solution to meet my needs. The same can be true for your construction company should you choose to go from chasing paper to being paperless.

Here’s a look at some of the options available to your current paper solutions:

Storage   

If you’ve been in business for any length of time you probably have filing cabinets or file boxes full of project documents, invoices, timesheets, tax documents, etc.  Maybe you even have offsite storage for all your paperwork. With paper storage your documents are susceptible to fire and flood damage as well as theft of confidential information. A secure cloud computing storage solution is probably your best bet. Other options include onsite server storage or backing everything up on external hard drives. With a good document software solution you can easily access any document or associated documents with a few keystrokes on the computer rather than having to locate and sort through bulky files.

Plans & Specs

2D paper plans are good, but they pale in comparison to when you look at all the additional information that can be provided with BIM models. Augmented reality, tablets, digital plan tables, SMART Boards and wearables like smart hard hats and Microsoft’s HoloLens will make paper plans and specs obsolete. I also read recently about a company called Zebra Imaging which can make holographic prints of from 3D models for better visualization. Why bother with 2D plans when you can immerse yourself in 3D images where you can view exploded details of building components with additional information like cost, time and scheduling.

With digital plans you can always have instant access to the most up to date drawings, something paper plans will never be able to accomplish. Digital plans and BIM models also allow for better project collaboration because all parties can view and either make or suggest changes as the drawing progress, which makes for a better end product.

Employee Timesheets

Keeping up with your employees paper timesheets can be a real hassle. Not only do you have to make sure they’ve all been filled out and completed properly, you also have to get them safely back to the office so your HR or accounting folks can get them entered and processed to pay your employees. Mobile solutions like ClockShark allows you to schedule, monitor and make corrections to time cards without all the messy paperwork. Some mobile time clock solutions also allow you integrate with your payroll software.

Project Management & Documentation

There are all sorts of software solutions and mobile apps that have been developed for the construction industry manage and document both your projects and your entire construction business. Paper processes such as daily logs, punch lists, requests for information, estimating and takeoffs can all be replaced with currently available software and mobile apps which you can easily access from a smartphone or tablet.

What are your thoughts on going paperless? Are you currently using a digital solution to eliminate some of your paper usage to save your company time and money?

5 Responses to “Going Paperless In The Construction Industry”

  1. Jason May 14, 2015 at 9:54 AM #

    When I started in the industry, blueprints were really blue. I fondly remember the ammonia smell as I unrolled a new set of plans.

    It has been a few years since the company I am with has gone paperless. The company before that, was transitioning to a paperless format when I exited.

    I do all my takeoff on-screen with Bluebeam, then export that data to Excel, and input it to my estimating program from there. I am sure that one day there will be an interface, and I will be able to eliminate the Excel step. It is nice not having my office cluttered with plans and spec books, sometimes it felt like they were closing in on me.

    Everything pertaining to a certain job, is kept in its own folder; no more losing papers and cluttered, bulging briefcase. I manage all of my email, take care of submittals and close out documents all digitally now as well. Instead of having a paper library, I have digital catalogs all in a folder on my desktop.

    We use Bluebeam in the field as well, so for the cost of one set of build plans, each superintendent carries an iPad with the entire set of plans, and he can mark up his progress daily, and keep build documents as the job goes on. Plug the iPad in at night, and it can be set to sync and upload the latest and greatest plans (addendums, RFI changes, etc) With the same tool, they can track employee time, and email it to payroll, as well as keep detailed material lists and email them to purchasing for order. BIM drawings can be pulled up on the iPad in the field to take a look at potential obstacles as well.

    More and more GC’s are going digital now as well, as well as architects, engineers and designers. Communication is more effective, and productivity is increased.

    • Kendall Jones May 14, 2015 at 10:02 AM #

      Thanks for the comment Jason. The important takeaway is that the technology makes the workflow easier and improves paper processes, no real advantage to switching if it didn’t improve current methods with paper. Were there a lot of obstacles to overcome as you made the transition?

  2. Jason May 18, 2015 at 4:55 PM #

    The only real obstacle was becoming proficient with new software and processes.

    Once I overcame that, and realized that I can perform the same functions, just without hitting *print* it started to come together more easily.

    I probably have not printed out a ream worth of paper in the last 3 years. I can’t imagine going backward if I were to change jobs in the future to a company that is not paperless. That would feel as foreign and silly as issuing me a bag phone, and a beeper.

  3. William S May 25, 2015 at 11:52 PM #

    My wife and her sisters are planning their trip to Europe and of course plan to use the GPS to navigate. But they’ll also have a real map … there’s just something about a map.

    I ordered several “real” books last week because I love the feel of a book in my hand. I also love using Evernote for “anywhere access” to EVERYTHING including a certain collection of books. AND immediate access to every idea I’ve ever had (at least since using Evernote). It’s a great tool that I use extensively for everything.

    And then there’s the construction industry. The ability to zero in, with vivid detail, on a particular portion of the plans and the power to make changes as the project progresses. I remember the hassles of trying to make needed changes to a blueprint (in communication with the architect and/or engineer of course … a true pain in the a$$).

    And the ultimate reason to embrace paperless. Incorporating changes to the design during construction for instant as-built drawings for immediate presentation to the client.

    Absolutely priceless … and good for business!

    William S

    • Kendall Jones May 26, 2015 at 8:20 AM #

      Thanks for the insightful comment William. All great reasons for going paperless.

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